Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Happy Earth Day!

I love Earth Day, perhaps even more than my birthday. That might seem strange, but it's true. Earth Day was started on April 22, 1970, the day after I was born. Do the math; I am 38. Sad, but true. I have friends that are ok with their age and darn proud of it. I am ok with my age, but I don't wear it like a badge of honor like they do. If someone calls me ma'am I still cringe. But I digress.

In addition to celebrating my 28th birthday for the tenth time, I made a point this year to really play up Earth Day. Truth be told, this is the first year that I have ever given much thought about Earth Day. I have friends who have been all about Earth Day for years. These are the same friends who are ok with their age. They are also much healthier and skinner than me, so they must be doing something right. Again, I digress. Anyway, being mental is nothing new for me, but being environmental is relatively new. For me, being "eco-" means making choices that are both economically and ecologically sound.

To that end, I have some thoughts on the eco-friendly choices that we make as a family that hopefully are trickling down to our children. They are, in many ways, lifestyle choices that are vastly different from when I was growing up, some of which are harder to incorporate than others. For this generation of children, being eco-friendly is not just trendy or normal, it's a societal necessity.

1. Minimize waste. By packing foods that are nutritious in proper portions, we waste little food. Buying in the largest and most practical quantities for our family avoids the markup for packaging convenience items. Likewise, by using reusable containers, we are minimizing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. To be fair, I still buy drink boxes, juice in pouches, and small packets of crackers and snacks, but very rarely. Convenience packaging is a personal choice which I can appreciate. However, doing it yourself is relatively easy, although it does require a bit more time. On a scale of 1 to 5, the difficulty for us to adopt this strategy has been a 3. Not easy, but not impossible.

2. Waste-free or minimally wasteful lunches. Since lunch is the meal that most school-age children eat outside of home on a regular basis, families that choose to do this are doing the right thing. On a larger scale, schools that have adopted waste-free lunch programs are on the leading edge. Waste-free school lunches is still in its infancy. With the exception of some schools on the west coast and a few other environmentally forward-thinking schools, it's virtually unheard of. The parents of the preschool my daughter attends have agreed to adopt a waste-free lunch policy starting the next school year. My prediction is that it is a matter of time before waste-free cafeterias and on-site composting is done on a large scale. For more information about waste-free lunch programs at your school, this EPA website is a great place to start. On a scale of 1 to 5, this has been a 2 for us.

2. Using reusable canvas or recycled, post-consumer waste bags for groceries. Getting into the habit of remembering to put the reusable grocery bags in the car has been the biggest challenge about this habit. Likewise, remembering to bring them into the store with us has also been a bit challenging. Our local supermarket has been selling some really nice bags made of 100% post-consumer waste, so I bought four of them. They are large, very sturdy, and their bright colors and vibrant graphics are very cool and are being sold for the Elizabeth Haub Foundation. I must admit that I am a little annoyed that their are more designs available than the four our store has.... Grrr.... Seriously, though, using reusable bags is a no-brainer. This one is a 1 out of 5. Plus our store gives us a $0.02 credit per bag. Not that 0.02 is going to get you anywhere, but it's one or two fewer plastic bags going into a landfill.

3. Unplugging our electronics when we are not using them. This one has been hard. I am guilty of leaving our computer, tv, and many household electronics 24-7. I have recently begun unplugging the coffee pot and toaster oven when they are not in use. I also unplug the nightlights in our house, all three of them, when we are not using them. Admittedly, I should turn off the computer, but the power strip is so out of reach. It's a lame excuse. I should just buy some new power strips, one with a longer cord for the computer and one for the tv, cable box, dvd player, etc.

4. Composting and recycling. Composting was somewhat challenging at first, but we have gotten used to it. I have a ceramic canister with a tight seal and latching lid that I keep on the kitchen counter for fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, and coffee grinds. Initially the ick factor kept me from doing it, but a few heaping spoonfuls of baking soda in the bottom of the container eliminated the odor factor. It is about a quart-sized container and once a week I take the contents out to our compost pile and with my rake, toss it in, and cover it up. Recycling is not even a question. Our town has a schedule to pick up recyclable plastic, glass, cans, cardboard, paper, etc. Composting was about a 3 in terms of difficulty to do and recycling is a 1.

Living in a more environmentally friendly way is definitely more mainstream than it was a few years ago. My prediction is that many things that seem trendy now, like waste-free school cafeterias and solar panels, will become de rigeur in the very foreseeable future. Some things, like reducing the amount of packaging, plastic, and paper products people use are easy things to do that take some time, but cost very little to do. Other things, like getting solar panels on your house or heat exchangers instead of hot water heaters, are still largely out of reach for the average consumer because equipment and installation costs are so high. At the moment, the $16,000+ investment in solar panels for my house is much to exorbitant for me, even with a state-sponsored and funded rebate. However, my hope is that if everyone wants solar panels and heat exchangers, then the basic economics of supply and demand will bring the prices down so normal people with kids and dogs, minivans and mortgages, can afford them. You can bet that I will be first in line when that day comes.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Photo credits: Microsoft Windows sample images

Monday, April 14, 2008

Warm, cozy, and chocolate

Despite being mid-April, it is still quite chilly here in the northeast, particularly overnight and first thing in the morning. There are few things that warm one up more than a nice, hot steamy cup of hot cocoa. I am a big fan of hot cocoa. This past winter I discovered Dunkin' Donuts white hot chocolate. Good stuff. Those product developers knew what they were doing. It's a little sweeter than it needs to be, but I don't mind because the velvety texture and just the right amount of froth make it taste like a giant marshmallow that you can drink. Mmmm....

Hot milk based beverages are a classic evening treat for children before bedtime in India. Every child in India knows Bournvita, although whether you get it depends on your family's income level. My mom's family, for example, rarely got Bournvita but got Horlicks instead, also a malt based product, whereas in my father's family that's all they got. When I was growing up, Bournvita was hard to come by in the United States. Occasionally you would see a tin at the Indian store or at someone's house that they brought back from India. Most Indian families settled for Ovaltine. There simply was no American equivalent to Horlicks, so for people who grew up on that, there was nothing.

Fast forward to 2008 and rows and rows of Bournvita and Horlicks, as well as their competitors, line the shelves of the Indian grocery stores, which are starting to look more like American supermarkets each year. My daughter loves Bournvita almost as much as I do. My son, however, is not as keen on it and prefers traditional instant hot chocolate. My husband is not a fan at all and prefers Ovaltine as his chocolaty-malty milk mix in.
I love Bournvita on cold nights before bed, or first thing in the morning, or right after coming home from shoveling or playing in the snow, or when I'm cold, which is quite often since I am a figure skating coach. Seriously. Don't laugh. I swear it's a real job, although my husband might disagree.
Aside from being really good, it warms my heart to share something comforting with my kids that their grandparents enjoyed too. There's definitely some value in shared experience across generations and around the world. Drinking Bournvita makes me feel very Indian. Giving it to my kids connects them to their ethnic roots, even if they don't see it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bagel Box, take two

"Mommy," my seven-year-old began quite seriously, "if you won't let me buy a bagel bag at school, at least make one that has the same stuff in it."

This is another attempt at the now infamous bagel box. Upon extended discussion, Zachary pointed out that the bagel bag at school did not include fruit, crackers, or cookies as packed in the first bagel box a few weeks ago.

"Fine," I retorted, "then you will have neither cookies nor crackers. I hope you don't starve"

So this is what we wound up with: half of a plain bagel, carrot sticks in a silicone diamond shaped cupcake form, a schmear of cream cheese, and a brownie. I felt bad not giving him anything sweet, so the brownie was a bonus. Apple juice is in the reusable box and I included a small kiddie knife and a Transformers cloth napkin.

The kiddie knife is a relic from a preschool cutlery set made by The First Years that used to go back and forth with him to school. It has a little fork and spoon also and a durable plastic covered case. I wish I had bought two of them back then, but with only one child at the time, there was no point. On a recent trip to buy a gift for a friend, I looked for them at Buy Buy Baby, but they seemed to only have the reusable disposable cutlery sets. Oh well.

Waste generated: zero

When I emptied his lunch box in the evening, I said, "Oh, wow, sweetie, I'm really sorry you got a brownie in your lunch. You weren't supposed to. I know they don't have brownies in the bagel bag, so I'll remember next time." Needless to say he chirped up, "No! I like brownies in my lunch!" I responded, "So what are you saying, then? What I pack is better than school?" Conceding defeat, he gave me one of those cartoon looks when the smart-aleck character is outwitted. Hee hee....

Score another for mommy on the bagel box: Mommy 2, Daddy 1

Saturday, April 12, 2008

After school snack

My kids, like many, have activities every day after school each week which run the gamut of music lessons to sports. My son is usually starving after school and on some days he will munch on the remains of his lunch, but like most of us, he likes to dig into his packed snack to see what I packed. Typically on these nights, it is well after 7PM before we get home, so I pack something substantial enough to hold him over until dinner. I tend to pack more than they will eat so there is enough for me to graze a bit as well.

This is a typical snack before athletic days: Air popped popcorn; mini fruit bento consisting of half a sliced kiwi, sliced strawberries, and red grapes, sandwich bento containing a mini corn muffin, tuna salad wedge - solid white tuna, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and a bit of horseradish on whole wheat bread and a bit of lettuce, sliced red and yellow bell peppers and cucumbers, and a mini corn muffin; homemade trail mix containing walnuts (great vegan source of Omega-3's), raisins, and milk chocolate chips; chocolate soy milk in a reusable drink container.

When I make after school snacks, I make a point to include a healthy dose of protein, whether it's some tuna or peanut butter. I also include some whole grains as either bread or crackers. Air popped popcorn is a great choice because it has a fun texture and flavor and it's quite filling without saturated fats found in many other salty snacks. Fruit, in some form or another, is a must and in the warmer months I make sure there is a bottle of water, reusable, of course.

Sometimes I throw in a fruit bar, such as the ones available at Trader Joe's because my son doesn't like raisins. My daughter, on the other hand, picks them out of the trail mix with the chocolate chips and leaves behind the walnuts. While some parents might question the chocolate chips and chocolate milk, my feeling is that a little bit of chocolate is ok in moderation. I don't want my kids to feel deprived of treats, so a few chocolate chips and some chocolate milk a few times a week goes a long way.

One treat that they get once a week at most on skating days is a drink box of Horizon Organic Chocolate milk. It's sooooooo good. I started buying it as a healthier alternative to the nasty, sugary sweet hot cocoa at the concession stand at the skating rink. Normally I avoid drink boxes in favor of reusable containers, but when it comes to this chocolate milk, I just don't have the self discipline to let a half-gallon container sit in the refrigerator, lonely, dejected, and sad among the juice, soy milk, and regular milk. Out of pity, guilt, I could polish off a gallon of this stuff at one sitting. It's that good. So in favor of my budget and my waistline, drink boxes it is. Exercising the restraint not to drink those is tough enough. Our rink is so cold, however, that occasionally I give in and let them have cocoa, although I split the contents into two cups and add a bit of milk to cut the sugar factor a bit. Having the really yummy chocolate milk, however, has proven to be a tasty alternative for them and now they rarely ask for cocoa.

Thank you, Shushi Masi, for the lovely hand-loomed and handpainted napkin brought back from India. Profits from these homemade textiles can support an entire family in rural India for a month. We are very lucky to have a set of six of them!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bread, fruit, and cheese

When I was an undergrad, there was a campus non-alcoholic pub that had a very shi-shi platter called bread, fruit, and cheese. It was half of a baguette, a small tub of Boursin or Alouette garlic and herb cheese spread, an apple and some grapes. It wasn't exactly fancy, but a nice departure from the cafeteria fare.

I made this snack for Mackenzie as a modern mommy interpretation of bread, fruit, and cheese:

I made mini cracker sandwiches out of goat cheese and mini sesame crackers from Trader Joe's. In the middle are graham crackers and on the left are some strawberries and granny smith apple slices. I made a little wax paper wrap to surround the fruit and contain any seepage into the other items. I also gave her a reusable drink box with apple juice and her Tinkerbell cloth napkin.

Review: Pretty good. She ate two of the mini cracker sandwiches, one strawberry and one graham crackerShe forgot that she likes goat cheese and turned her nose up at it at first (while I was making them). Then she tried one and remembered that she likes goat cheese, so all was well. Waste generated: one small piece of wax paper.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pittsburgh lunch

Around once a year or so I get a hankerin' for some good old Pittsburgh style grub. Ok, I don't really know what a hankerin' is, but according to Schoolhouse Rock, one can hanker for a hunk o' cheese. Or was that a PSA? Usually it's in the midst of football season when the weather is chilly and some stick-to-your-ribs stuff is just what the doctor ordered.

Football season is long gone, and the next one is still months away, but I was in the mood for good, old-fashioned Pittsburgh-style Ham Barbecue sandwiches the other day. I made them for dinner the other night with pierogies, complete with sour cream on the side. Feeling guilty about stuffing my kids with calories, carbs, and cholesterol, not to mention processed meats and not a whole grain in sight, I made some steamed broccoli on the side.

There were no pierogies leftover because that would be wrong. There is a law about that in Pittsburgh. Thou shalt not leave uneaten pierogies at the table. They must all be consumed - no matter what. Waistline and diet complaints will not be tolerated.

I made enough of the Ham Barbecue concoction for Zachary's lunch the next day and sent him off to school with a potato roll and two mini corn muffins on the side. I don't even want to contemplate the fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrate count on this lunch, but it sure was good.

Ham Barbecue Sandwiches
1 12-oz can of Coca-Cola - use Classic Coke, not diet
1 cup of Heinz ketchup
1 lb of Isaly's chipped ham *
6 hamburger rolls

Combine Coke, ketchup, and ham in a saucepan over medium heat, simmer. Serve on rolls.

* Chipped ham is product found in western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. I used a similar product available in NJ called Smithfield Chopped ham and had it shaved. Even turkey ham will work.

If this sounds cloyingly sweet, it is, but it's also really, really good. There are other versions of this recipe that are more involved with cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard, but this one is quick and easy. You can also make this with your favorite bottled barbecue sauce. Ham barbecues are a Pittsburgh classic, served at picnics, potlucks, tailgates, and lunch counters for years and years. Potato chips and a pickle are the classic accompaniment. I like the rolls toasted and coleslaw or potato salad on the side. This also works really well in a slow-cooker, the longer it cooks the better.